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Border security 10 years after 9/11

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2011

Policy Perspectives

Border Warriors

Border security 10 years after 9/11: Wasteful policy
fueling new drug wars

by Tom Barry


Introduction: Over the past several years, Tom Barry has traveled the Southwest border from Texas through Arizona tracking the post-9/11 security anxiety. Barry, who lives in a largely self-constructed (with lots of help from friends) passive-solar, straw-bale home in Pinos Altos with life partner Deb Preusch and their two daughters Alex and Taylor, has been writing on border issues and US-Mexico relations since the late 1970s.

In his recently released book Border Wars (MIT Press), Barry offers a vivid profile of a US borderland that has become a staging ground for the latest front in the four-decades-old drug war, the economic beneficiary of a vast increase in "border security" funding, and the home of a new gulag of private immigrant prisons (such as the two in Otero county just north of El Paso).

Some see rogue states like Arizona and Texas as a model for the nation in their go-it-alone posturing and tough immigration-enforcement talk. In Border Wars, dogged investigative journalist Tom Barry documents the costs of that model: lives lost; families torn apart; billions of wasted tax dollars; vigilantes prowling the desert; and fiscal crises in cities, counties and states.

As Barry explains, the lack of coherent federal policy on immigration and drug war conduct and the uncritical embrace of all things in the name of national security has opened doors for opportunists from boardrooms to governors' offices. Corporate-prison magnates eagerly swallow up undocumented immigrants into taxpayer-funded dungeons, border sheriffs and politicians trade on voters' fears of Latinos and "big government," and pro-business policy institutes and lobbyists battle the public interest.

Border Wars offers a stark portrait of the domestic cost of failed federal leadership in the post-9/11 era.

Tom Barry, senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, is author of many books, including The Great Divide and Zapata's Revenge. His article "A Death in Texas" was a finalist for a 2010 National Magazine Award for reporting in the public interest. He blogs at borderlinesblog.blogspot.com.


As a border state, New Mexico has been blessedly free of the anti-immigrant vigilantism and the ranting of border hawks that have agitated Texas and Arizona. Over the past year, however, Governor Susana Martinez has deviated from this tradition with fearmongering about border security and new scapegoating of immigrants for crime and traffic accidents. This plays to her conservative base but has met staunch popular and policy-community resistance.

border policy
Fences and vehicle barriers now line the Southwest border.
(Photos by Tom Barry)

Like its neighbors, New Mexico has benefited from an infusion of border security funding and infrastructure projects. Since 2005, when the Bush administration launched its Secure Border Initiative and the immigrant crackdown began in earnest, the New Mexico border has had a security makeover. A stark 18-foot-high steel fence rises for five miles on either side of the Columbus-Palomas port-of-entry, picking up again west of the Santa Teresa POE and continuing east past El Paso and beyond Ft. Hancock. A vehicle barrier now protects most of the Bootheel's border with Mexico. The tiny, scarcely used Antelope Wells POE received a $1.5 million upgrade with federal stimulus funding.

Hidden in the remote Bootheel is one of the nation's chief homeland security, border security and counterterrorism training centers. The Playas Training and Research Center brings together most branches of the expanding post-9/11 homeland security apparatus, including the various agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, the military and the drug war agencies of the Justice Department, as well as the state's own local and state law enforcement agencies — all under the auspices of New Mexico Tech in Socorro, which now promotes its expertise in the "science of security." Eager to cash in on the homeland security/border security boom with its multibillion surge in DOD, DHS and DOJ grants, New Mexico Tech established the Border Security Center (BORSEC) for Research, Education, Training and Technical Assistance "to aid in countering border violence." Meanwhile, border area crime continues to fall, and state and federal officials are hard put to document where all this US border violence is.

The Grant County Sheriff's Office is one of the most unlikely beneficiaries of border security funding, through the DHS Stonegarden Program that funds overtime pay and equipment purchases for border law enforcement. While Grant County doesn't touch the border, it qualifies for annual grants approaching $1 million, which has enabled the county to purchase new vehicles, including a barely used state-of-the-art mobile crime lab, and ply the department with overtime pay for deputies who make the two-hour trip to the Bootheel to patrol the road that passes through Hachita. The result has been a major uptick in traffic tickets, as well as an occasional apprehension of an illegal immigrant or two.

Undoubtedly, the border security boom has been good for Grant County and other parts of the greater borderlands. But there is little evidence that, as the sheriff's department attests in its quarterly reports to DHS, the department "has been successful in counteracting the ravages and terror of human smuggling, drug smuggling, destruction of property and associated criminal activities." There are few questions and no evaluation about the border security program in Grant County, or anywhere else, because border security is one of the few federal programs that enjoys bipartisan political support, particularly from border politicians eager to see more federal dollars flow into their region.


Border Security Is Born

Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the term "border security" was rarely used. Today, however, it is both a fundamental goal of US domestic security and the defining paradigm for border operations. Despite the federal government's routine declarations of its commitment to securing the border, neither Congress nor the executive branch has ever clearly defined the term "border security."

Border security constitutes the single largest line item in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget. Nonetheless, DHS has failed to develop a border security strategy that complements US domestic and national security objectives. DHS has not even attempted to delineate benchmarks that would measure the security of the border or specify exactly how the massive border security buildup has increased homeland security.

In its strategic plan, DHS does promise: "We will reduce the likelihood that terrorists can enter the United States. We will strengthen our border security and gain effective control of our borders." And DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano assured us last year that, as a result of new border security spending by the Obama administration, "the Southwest border is more secure than ever before."

Since 2003, Homeland Security and the Justice Department have opened spigots of funding for an array of border security operations. These include commitments for 18-foot steel fencing, high-tech surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), increased prosecutions of illegal border crossers and new deployments of the Border Patrol and National Guard.

Yet the federal government's continued expressions of its commitment to border security serve only to highlight the shortcomings of this commitment and to spark opposition to long- overdue immigration reform. "Secure the border" — a political demand echoed by immigration restrictionists, grassroots anti-immigrant activists and a chorus of politicians — now resounds as a battle cry against the federal government and liberal immigration reformers. These border security hawks charge that the federal government is failing to meet its responsibility to secure the border, pointing to continued illegal crossings by immigrants and drug traffickers. Border sheriffs, militant activists and state legislatures are even taking border security into their own hands.

The post-9/11 imperative of securing "the homeland" set off a widely played game of one-upmanship that has had Washington, border politicians and sheriffs, political activists and vigilantes competing to be regarded as the most serious and hawkish on border security. The emotions and concerns unleashed by the 9/11 attacks exacerbated the long-running practice of using the border security issue to further an array of political agendas — immigration crackdowns, border pork-barrel projects, drug wars, states' rights and even liberal immigration reform. Yet these new commitments to control the border have been largely expressions of public diplomacy rather than manifestations of new thinking about the border.




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